President Obama is in the doldrums. He has run out of ideas, and out of gas. His strongest supporters are in the grip of a morbid fatalism. There is nothing the president can do any longer, they sigh, because of the intransigent Republicans in the House of Representatives. The great days of the Obama presidency are behind us, everyone seems to believe, and the most this once-promising president can do now are hold convenings and issue small-bore executive orders while awaiting a round of midterm elections that are likely to go against him. Oh, woe is he.
It’s time to snap out of it. Obama is still the most powerful man in the world. The nation still needs presidential action. And the Democrats need action too, if they’re going to avoid disaster this fall.
Last week, I asked around for suggestions, things the Obama administration could do, all on its own, that the Republicans in Congress would be powerless to stop. I heard countless good ideas: Obama could make it absolutely clear to his FCC chairman that net neutrality is the policy of his administration; he could reclassify marijuana so that it is no longer a Class 1 narcotic; he could reform the federal contracting system to discourage outsourcing and promote good labor practices; he could encourage whistleblowers rather than punishing them.
There is also still an opportunity for momentous, headline-making, consensus-shattering deeds. Each of the following three ideas would move the country in the direction Obama has always maintained he wanted to move us—toward accountability, away from inequality, toward a healthy middle class. And each of them is sufficiently big that it might make a difference this fall.
Yes, doing these things would require audacity, but that’s why we elected this guy in the first place. These days it’s either show some boldness—some confrontational cleverness—or resign yourself to killing time for the next two years and hoping President Hillary (or President Huckabee) gets better breaks.
1. President Obama should instruct his Attorney General to start enforcing the nation’s antitrust laws the way Democrats used to do.
Once upon a time, monopoly and oligopoly were illegal in America. Our ancestors believed, correctly, that concentrated economic power was incompatible with democracy in all sorts of ways. (Antitrust expert Barry Lynn and I talked this over for Salon readers a few weeks ago.) Since the days of Ronald Reagan, however, every succeeding administration has chosen to enforce the antitrust laws only if the monopoly or oligopoly in question threatened to cause big price increases for consumers -- and sometimes not even then. This has come to mean that nearly all mergers and takeovers are permitted, and that achieving monopoly has once again become the obvious strategic objective of every would-be business leader.
The consequences of this policy shift have been huge, both in our everyday economic lives—where we face off against unchallengeable power everywhere from beer to bookselling—and the gradual fraying of society. Unrestrained corporate power naturally yields unrestrained wealth for corporate leaders and their Wall Street backers. In a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine about inequality (once Obama’s favorite subject), the economist Joseph Stiglitz declared monopoly to be one of the main culprits:
“The most successful ‘entrepreneurs’ have figured out how to create barriers to competition, behind which they can earn huge profits. It is not a surprise that the world’s richest person, Bill Gates, earned his fortune through a company that has engaged in anticompetitive practices in Europe, America, and Asia. Nor that the world’s second richest, Carlos Slim, made his fortune by taking advantage of a poorly designed privatization process, creating a virtual monopoly in Mexico’s telecom industry. . . .”
Barack Obama could change the entire thing—could bend the inequality curve itself—merely by deciding to enforce the nation’s antitrust laws in the same way that administrations before Reagan did. The laws themselves were written a century ago, so our current, useless Congress would have no say in the matter.
I asked Barry Lynn what this would look like. “The administration can begin tomorrow to attempt to enforce antitrust law exactly as the Johnson Administration enforced it in 1967,” he wrote me. Obama and Co. would encounter obstacles here and there, of course—the companies singled out by the Justice Department would fight like hell, for example. But there would be little the House of Representatives could do to stop the administration, Lynn says, short of “cutting off funds for enforcement or declaring monopoly legal.” Either of which would, of course, be fatal to the right.
“There’s nothing here,” Lynn concluded, “that a bit of courage, combined with a bit of smarts, wouldn’t fix.”
For Obama to launch a FDR-style crusade against economic feudalism would push just about everything short of war off the front pages and would also put the GOP in the uncomfortable position of defending monopoly power. It would also remind voters of the original, more hopeful Obama crusade of 2008, when the Senator from Illinois traveled the country promising to restore competition to agricultural markets—back before he decided to just drop the whole thing.
Lastly, a fight against our modern-day octopi might put small-business people, the right’s most motivated constituency these days, back onto the political fence. Antitrust is their issue, after all: let’s see them get out and work their butts off for Boehner when he’s standing tall for the multinational that just drove them out of business.
2. Investigate and prosecute fraud committed during the housing bubble.
This one would require a little urgency, since we are getting close to the statute of limitations, but it’s the right thing to do—hell, it borders on existential necessity.
No one cares about the gargantuan civil settlements the Justice Department has been winning from the Wall Street banks. The law enforcement community, for their part, has been content to blame individual homebuyers for the disaster that sank the economy. The leaders of Obama’s justice department, meanwhile, worry themselves sick that prosecuting financiers might damage the banks and the economy.
“Too big to jail” is a philosophy that will curdle patriotism and kill idealism for years to come—an ironic end to a presidency that began with so much “Hope.” It is Obama’s greatest failure; indeed, it borders on an outrage. He can still salvage the situation, however, by investigating and prosecuting high-ranking financiers for the obvious wave of fraud that puffed the bubble to begin with. Doing so would signal that no one is above the law; that America insists on accountability even for the very rich. It might even make the president a hero overnight.
I asked Bill Black, a former S&L regulator with enormous experience in prosecuting white-collar crime, if such a thing could still be done, and how the Justice Department might proceed.
The answer, in short, is yes, it can be done. The authorities have the smoking gun, Black says, in the records of the company that many Wall Street firms hired for due diligence purposes back in the bubble days. And it’s a “smoking Gatling gun, with hundreds of canisters,” Black adds. “We know exactly where to look. It goes through the entire [financial] universe, all the major players.”
The first step in building the cases, Black explains, is to “dramatically increase the number of prosecutors and FBI agents assigned to the cases. [Attorney General] Holder can do it tomorrow.” Then Holder would “hyper-prioritize those cases. . . . You would identify the 25 highest priority targets, take all these FBI agents running these half-assed cases against the mice, and put them against the biggest frauds in modern history.” With some determined leadership, Black maintains, indictments could be brought and cases could be won—just as many of them were won back in the days of the S&L scandal.
If Obama did it, Black concludes, “he’d go out a star.” And so he would. But what scares me most about this proposal is the near certainty that Obama and Holder won’t do it, that they will sit on their hands and let the statute of limitations elapse. Then, in a few years, the brilliant young man who we elected to take on the banksters will head home to Chicago having never laid a as much as a glove on them, leaving the financiers to lead us happily into the next disaster, knowing with absolute certainty that no policeman and no politician in this country can ever touch them.
3. Make it clear that he will no longer tolerate the college tuition price spiral.
President Obama loves to encourage young people to get themselves a college education. The bachelor’s degree, he thinks, is the golden ticket that makes a career and everything else possible. For society as a whole, it’s the platinum bullet that will solve tough problems like inequality and the collapse of the middle class.
What the president hasn’t been able to do is talk the colleges themselves into playing along. Obama can make sure each student has sufficient federal loans, and he can come up with a decent loan-forgiveness program. But he has been unable to stop his friends in academia from ripping those students off, from burdening them with debts so overwhelming that they may never be able to escape.
With a little originality, however, Obama can get started on the problem. The federal government has enormous leverage over the nation’s colleges and universities thanks to its massive funding of higher education. And the time to use that leverage is now.
Obama has already shown what he can do to an institution of higher ed in cases where his people suspect there’s something fishy going on. I refer to Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit outfit that until recently offered courses in vocational subjects, paid for largely by federal grants and loans. The company went out of business a short while ago, after Federal regulators demanded to see proof of its job placement rates. It now appears to be facing a criminal investigation.
What Team Obama did to Corinthian Colleges, they can do to any of our better-known knowledge mills, regardless of their tax status. These more-mainstream institutions may not have shareholders like their for-profit counterparts, but many of them are otherwise strikingly similar. A simple Google search turns up egregious examples of unpunished misbehavior and conflicts of interest at even the best of them.
University endowments often act like hedge funds—and hedge funds that are allowed to issue tax-exempt debt, at that. Many law schools, meanwhile, were recently caught up in a scandal over job placement for graduates. And then there's the extremely well-known story of what our best universities have done to those individuals who sought PhDs in the humanities.
My suggestion to the president: Forget trying to persuade college presidents to play nice. With all the federal money that is dumped annually on the academy, you are entitled to accountability. Choose some high-profile colleges—preferably one of these 60-grand-a-year outfits—and make an example of them. Shatter the myths of prestige; demand to know why they have such an enormous roster of administrators; make them explain why they pay adjuncts so poorly; and cut through all the bullshit about how they need to keep raising tuition because students want fancy cafeterias. Demand to see the numbers, demand to hear an explanation for every expense, and then make all of it public.
If that doesn’t work, it might be time for price controls. Nixon put them into place by himself; Obama can, too.
Not only would moves like these be popular among anyone who’s ever made a tuition or student loan payment, but it would also constitute what the centrists like to call a “Sister Souljah Moment.” Obama would be giving a public stiff-arm to one of his most devoted constituencies—the higher ed industry—in the comforting assurance that they have nowhere else to go.
I mean, what are all those ivory tower folks going to do, vote for some science-denying Republicans? That’ll be the day.
Looking back over all the suggestions I have made here, I begin to suspect that the administration’s stagnation isn’t a problem of ideas, it’s a problem of backbone.